Planning Europe’s Future Theatre

Savas Patsalidis*

Abstract

In Europe, a continent that is changing rapidly, in both diverse and heterogeneous communities, the planning of its future theatre is not an easy task; many changes are required, especially with regard to its (re)presentational codes, its themes and its overall philosophy to keep abreast of social change.  Finding a way to embrace such change was the focus of the meeting of the European Theatre Convention (ETC) in Nova Gorica, 16-21 April, 2024.  Participants attempted to prepare the ground for a new generation of artists whose creative projects will bring to the stage the lives, narratives and concerns of the diverse people of the European continent. This article describes the hosted activities and comments on the difficulties and challenges of such an undertaking.

Keywords: ETC, New Europe, power game, domination, revitalizing theatre, dramaturgy of care

Nova Gorica in Slovenia, along with Gorizia in Northern Italy, are designated the European Capital of Culture for the year 2025. This is the first time in the history of the institution that two cities from two different countries have been selected to represent jointly the continent’s cultural capital; however, given the history of the region and the formation of the national status of the two cities, this result is not surprising.

Nova Gorica was once a suburb of Italian Gorizia. According to Wikipedia, after 1947, the Paris Peace Treaty established a new border between Yugoslavia and Italy, leaving a great part of nearby Gorizia outside the borders of Yugoslavia. In 1948, the Socialist Republic of Slovenia with the strong backing of Marshall Tito built a new settlement, a twin city called Nova Gorica. Since 2011, the two towns of Nova and Stara Gorica have been governed by a common administrative board.

The famous square indicates the borderline that separates the two cities. The Communication Office of the Slovenian Government has announced that in 2025 they are planning more than 600 cultural events and more than 60 projects with different partners. Photo: Web/Republic of Slovenia

With this history in mind, we understand why Go Borderless was adopted as the official motto of the cultural capital, as we also understand why the choice of Nova Gorica for the European Theatre Convention (ETC) was both apt and noteworthy.  The European Theatre Convention, established in 1988, is the largest network of publicly funded theatres in Europe, with 63 members in 31 countries. The sheer volume of participating theatre organizations reflects the significant cultural diversity of Europe, the Europe of many religions, languages, colours and histories.  

In a fragmented and troubled European continent, sharing ideas is not always easy, with so many obstacles to overcome, but precisely because it is not easy, democratic dialogue becomes all the more necessary.  It is particularly crucial when the dialogue concerns the well-being and future of young people, a social group that we do not often see as a subject of serious study. Especially for Europe, with its aging native population and its increasingly immigrant and/or refugee youth population from all parts of the planet, such a dialogue is not a choice but a necessity, as it concerns the future of its societies and the arts they produce.

In an age of lonely citizens and digital alienation, theatre professionals are called on to reconceptualize community not as a united, solid, compact and uniform collective body, but rather as a dialectical exchange between the solitude of singularity and partnership with others, encompassing many diversities; individuals and groups are required to reshuffle old modes of understanding and (re)presenting canonized stories in order to respond adequately to diversity in contemporary life and world view.

Theorists, for their part, speak of the age of so-called liquid modernity, as opposed to the age of solid modernity, when people believed in a linear model of rational progress, in line with the legacy of the Enlightenment, which aimed at the subjugation of chaos in the name of order. Nowadays, this erstwhile security blanket and optimism do not seem to apply. Our era lacks a clear compass of where it is going and what exactly it wants or needs. We live in an environment of contradictions and uncertainties, wondering and speculating. In the face of radical and rapid change taking place, structures, ideologies, performative and representational codes, and in general everything that characterized the world of solid modernity, cannot hold for long.  With changes succeeding one another at a rapid pace, it is logical that no stable reference points can be calibrated that could possibly lead to more specific social and artistic interventions and actions. Within these constantly shifting structural and aesthetic frameworks, any design or action lasts as long as the hosting frameworks endure, which is to say, not very long.

The Challenges

I note all the above to emphasize, especially for the theatre, that present and future challenges are enormous and intractable. In the midst of great fluidity and uncertainty, a dynamic, forward-looking and pragmatic theatre is needed, to systematically and persistently face the challenges and changes brought about by both postmodernism and globalization, especially with respect to free expression in a world increasingly dominated by autocrats, dictators,  populist demagogues and insignificant leaders.

The theatre which aims for a better and less confrontational future must find ways to promote inclusivity and eliminate discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual preference, ability, religion and / or social status. Clearly this is not easy, since it presupposes bold planning and decision-making, a reassessment of the past, a clear vision of the future and a novel approach to writing and representation.  Such transformation, however, will lead individuals, spectators and artists, to better understand the complexity of modern society and its relationship to the theatre and the arts in general.

The ETC Philosophy

Judging by its many programs so far, it is clear that ETC organizers view theatre as a means to create a vision of a New Europe of the future, one which is more sensitive to pressing sociopolitical and cultural issues. They envision a European theatre of creative dialogue with a focus on openly confronting and seeking solutions to problems. That explains why diversity is prioritized in all ETC programs, co-productions and conferences.

Through this prism of search and anxiety, the telling title of ETC’s three-year program, Transformations – Recharging European Theatres and Audiences in a Post-Covid World, reflects the central goal of creating a long-term vision for European theatre as a whole, a theatre accessible to all sectors of the population, especially young people. 

The program entitled Young Europe reflects this priority, as it aims to expand the canon of European theatre works by emphasizing forgotten, marginalised or silenced theatrical works, and also by creating new works specifically for young audiences of contemporary Europe. These goals were undertaken at the Nova Gorica meeting in April 2024, as models of thinking and writing were sought from non-dominant groups. Consequently, a new set of values emerged, new channels of communication were developed, and new teaching methodologies were designed, all with the unifying purpose of advancing European theatre by lessening the dominant presence of a white, middle-class, Eurocentric male perspective.

Through this program, ETC anticipates an aesthetically and ideologically expanded theatre “canon” that responds to the sensibilities and anxieties of young people and builds on themes relevant to their lives, as they are shaped by unprecedented and intimidating changes: climatic, economic, ethnographic, anthropological and ideological. The main goal is to gradually create a European theatre in which diversity flourishes and sustainability is the norm, in economic, ecological and social terms.  According to the UN definition of sustainability, a development is sustainable to the extent that it meets the needs of the present without limiting the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 

The delegates of the ETC in front of the National Theatre of Nova Gorica. Photo: Saša Mrak / David Verlič (SNG Nova Gorica / European Theatre Convention)

In the fourth phase of the Transformations/Young Europe project, interesting discussions were conducted on topics such as “Playwriting with Young Europe IV: Playwrights and Mentors,” “Expanding the Shared Drama” and “Audience Development and Artistic Education.” Eight theatres, representing various European countries, participated in this year’s Festival, entitled Discover Young Europe IV: Classroom Plays; participating countries included the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Belarus, Cyprus, Germany, Malta and England.  Writers were guided throughout the preparation of their plays by a team of playwrights and artists from several European countries who served as mentors. These plays, all 45 minutes in duration, were presented under the motto “The Young, The Bold: Break the Mold,” indicative of the intentions and concerns of all participants.

Heidi Wiley opening the session: “The Young, the Bold: Break the Mould.” Photo: Saša Mrak / David Verlič (SNG Nova Gorica / European Theatre Convention)

Five women and four men participated in the project; the purpose was to raise awareness on key issues that affect young people, such as education, quality of life, mental health, bullying, and feelings of shame, fear and exclusion, as seen through the prism of power relations.  In particular, participants explored which individuals wield power and how power is made visible.  For example, they considered how one’s body type might affect that person’s likelihood of asserting, dominating (or being dominated). Young writers were asked to identify problems faced by developing artists, and most importantly to explore and exploit their performative potential in order to gain more visibility.

Also of importance were concepts such as Europe and European identity, as participants considered what it means to be European, what kind of Europe they live in, and what kind of Europe they want or dream of.  Most importantly, they discussed what unites and separates them from others, in order to forge a common front which embraces cultural diversity and a unified European continent. 

In this spirit it was proposed, as a future project, that the dramaturgy of conflict be gradually replaced by the dramaturgy of reconciliation, i.e. the dramaturgy of caring and concern. Although I understand what is meant by this substitution, although I understand the noble aims of this proposal, I feel that the presence of conflict does not rule out the possibility of caring for others. Conflict is an all-time structural element, part of the very ontology of theatre’s philosophy, whereas caring or indifference is an attitude which reflects how one manages people and relationships involved in a conflict. By maintaining a balance between form and content, an ideal like this can certainly foster more peaceful and mutually beneficial relationships across diverse groups in Europe and beyond.

It is worth noting here that all participating writers were awarded State grants to complete their projects, thereby demonstrating that representatives of the canon could open their doors to non-mainstream, non-dominant voices.  Such a positive beginning is destined to produce beneficial results, provided of course that all participants from all constituencies contribute their fair share of effort.

The participants in the panel: Young Europe IV Playwrights. Photo: Saša Mrak / David Verlič (SNG Nova Gorica / European Theatre Convention)
A Few Words About the Projects

All the projects hosted at the Nova Gorica ETC meeting, explored, as mentioned above, the common theme of power, in particular, who wields power and how power is displayed. For example, the German writer Matin Soofipour Oman, in her work Room Rumours, focused on language as a tool with great propensity for displays of power, depending on how one uses it.  As she notes in the festival’s posted program: “In the beginning there was the word. What word? Who decides and who ultimately speaks the word?” She points out that in a classroom the answer is usually simple: the teacher moves center-stage and wields all the power; the class listens and speaks when asked, with the result that in the process, many of the student’s thoughts and questions are not heard.

Room Rumors, by Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe (Germany). Directed by Lydia Ziemke / suite42. Dramaturgy: Mona vom Dahl. Mentor: Dounia Mahammed. With Pascal Grupe/Hadeer Hando, Laman Leane Israfilova. Photo: Arno Kohlem, courtesy of ETC

Starting from this main thesis, she counter-proposes an interactive classroom game to overcome the problem and challenge the monopoly on truth.

Surviving: the Substitute Lesson. Junges! Staatstheater Braunschweig. Directed by Nazlı Saremi (Germany). Mentor: Patty Kim Hamilton. With Mariam Avaliani and Luca Füchtenkordt. Photo: Meilina Rudolf, courtesy of ETC

In Surviving: the Substitute Lesson, Emel Aydoğdu, of Germany, considers how language has the potential to define who we are; in particular, she is concerned with the effects of what is not articulated as opposed to what is.  As many languages are spoken by the students in the class, the teacher at the podium is gradually immersed in the colorful world of the classroom and undergoes self-discovery as a result.  The teacher learns new ways of teaching that are both meaningful and communicatively effective.

What’s Up by Tereza Trusinová, Slovak National Theatre – Drama Ensemble (Slovakia). Directed by Robert Roth. Mentor: Dino Pešut. Cast: Alexandra Lukáčová, Kristóf Melecsky. Photo: Bara Podola courtesy of ETC

What’s Up by Tereza Trusinová, Slovakia, dramatizes the topic of mental health and the difficulties a young person has in discussing problems with friends. In another play, Little Stars by Jaka Smerkolj Smoneti (Slovenia), the focus is on school violence, bullying, and sexual identity. Young people are caught between the expectations of others and their own desires. As noted in the program, the play does not depict explicit violence itself, but rather explores the causes of violence and adolescents’ feelings of powerlessness and social pressure.  Bullying is also a key theme in the play Fat by Zoe Apostolidou, of Cyprus.  The story focuses on Froixos, an overweight high school student.  Anxious about his appearance, he feels excluded by both friends and family, especially his mother, who constantly pressures him to lose weight.  The playwright asks what he should do to join the ranks of normal children. Froixos in the end  reaches a simple but difficult solution to the problem: he accepts who he is and how he looks, and he thus achieves the inner peace he so desperately craves.

Fat, Cyprus Theatre Organisation (Cyprus). Directed by Elena Sokratous. Mentor: Mohammad Al Attar. Photo: Theodora Iaokoboi, courtesy of ETC

Representing Malta, the play Gutz explores adolescent sexuality, the experience of shame and a young person’s act of resistance.  A young man sneaks into the school from which he graduated and asks himself, in moments of self-analysis, why he never acknowledged his feelings for James while he was a student.

Hassan and Moses, De Toneelmakerij (The Netherlands). Directed by Timothy de Gilde. Mentor: Mohammad Al Attar. Photo: Saša Mrak / David Verlič (SNG Nova Gorica / European Theatre Convention)

Hassan and Moses, by Tomer Pawlicki (Netherlands), touches on the overtly political issue of ethnic strife. The two main protagonists, Hassan, who is Muslim, and Moses, who is Jewish, are close friends and classmates. They successfully cohost a Tik Tok show with many followers until war erupts between Israel and Palestine, and their followers demand that they each take a stand on the war.  The play sensitively depicts the degree to which social environment and dominant ideologies and prejudices affect human interactions, especially the relationships of young people who have nothing to do with war.

The collaboration between Belarus and Great Britain resulted in Olga Voronkova’s play, Lucky.  Focusing on refugees from the war in Ukraine, the narrative shows that many of the victims are young children who suffer deeply and unjustly; the play asks how society should respond to their many needs and help them overcome the trauma of war. In particular, the playwright asks if a young child can really start a new life, having lost everything, and if the community has sufficient support to help these children reconstruct their lives.

General Comment

All of the works included in Classroom Plays shared a common theme which is evident in the title: “Promoting Non-Dominant Voices Through Theatre.” This theme was sufficiently broad to accommodate many of the problems of concern to young people today, such as sexuality, identity politics, bullying, ostracism, violence, refugee migration, inclusivity, camaraderie and participation. The quality of the presentations is not assessed here, because they were more in the form of works-in-progress than  completed texts, works that included a variety of formats such as interactive readings, re-enactments of works and discussions of how to address the problems raised in their work. 

Clearly, the classroom workshops were of great benefit to the target audiences.  Attuned to the poetics of participatory theatre as well as postdramatic, young European writers of the future sought ways to transcend the known stereotypes, go past prejudices, inhibitions, absolute conclusions, targeting at another theatre where mitigation of difference and promotion of compassion would be possible. All panelists, discussing the thematic concerns of the classroom plays, agreed that their aim was to prepare a new generation of artists with a new set of priorities.

The proximity of the spectator-student to the spectacle created a joyful participatory climate in each performance. Photo: Saša Mrak / David Verlič (SNG Nova Gorica / European Theatre Convention)

The classroom setting, characterized by linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity, provided an energizing environment to nurture and support new artists.  Participants expressed their hopes of cultivating a new public mentality more receptive to sociopolitical change, intercultural dialogue and collective action.  In their mind, an ideal classroom would also require an open channel for expressing diversity and the recognition of a broader range of classroom narratives, so that all members of the class feel welcome and validated.

It was a common understanding among all participants that the classroom teacher plays an important role in the development of a new generation of artists.  In working with young people, the teacher must be receptive and caring, and must therefore acknowledge and accept each student’s unique abilities and contributions, as each one contains an element of truth. Within such an environment, students also gain a lot; they first learn to listen and subsequently come to realize that listening is a form of action.  In such a classroom, they are all winners, teachers and students alike. 

According to ETC philosophy, such training gives shape and substance to the European Promise, an ideal analogous to that of the American Dream, as ETC projects aim to promote democracy, prosperity, equality and human rights.  The workshop speakers and participants seemed to share this sentiment, as did Ms Heidi Wiley, Executive Director (ETC) and Mr Christy Romer, Communications Manager, two very knowledgeable people who helped me understand more fully the significance of this undertaking as it prepares the community for future European theatre.

Talking with Heidi and Christy at the National Theatre’s foyer. Photo: Saša Mrak / David Verlič (SNG Nova Gorica / European Theatre Convention)
The National Theatre of Nova Gorica

The National Theatre of Nova Gorica, the only new theatre built in Slovenia in the last fifty years, participated in ETC activities with four of its productions.  One of these, The Best European Show, written by Marko Bratuš and Haris Pašović and directed by Haris Pašović, was internationally co-produced, bringing together five ETC member countries with actors from all five of these countries (Teatru Malta, JK Opole Theatre, Slovene National Theatre Nova Gorica, Fondazione Teatro Due, National Theatre of Kosovo).

The idea for a co-production was first discussed at the Maribor Festival by two of the judges, Norbert Rakowski, artistic director of JK Opole Theatre (Poland), and Bosnian director Haris Pašević. Their basic idea was to create a story around a European panel of judges selected to choose the winners of the last live theatre festival. The panel of judges would consist of a critic, a government official, a theatre manager and a writer, all of whom fearlessly opinionated, with unwavering standards in their reviews and disastrous ratings.

The Best European Show, a project supported by an ETC Development Grant. Director: Haris Pašovic. Translator: Marko Bratuš. Dramaturg: Sean Buhagiar Language. Cast: Paola De Crescenzo, Ana Facchini, Davide Gagliardini, Ibrahim Koma, May-Linda Kosumovic, Weronika Kozakowska, Małgorzata Kowalska, Philip Leone-Ganado, Felix Römer, Gianni Selvaggi, Armend Smajli, Błażej Stencel. Photo: Edgar de Poray, courtesy of ETC

Although the pan-European concept of this joined project was not bad, the staging was not the best possible. For example, the scattered episodes were not cohesive, there was no rhythm, and the satirical tone of the show did not reach the audience. The mixing of styles and cultures was in need of more polishing. On the contrary, the Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing was a far more enjoyable and artistically complete work, with a good sense of rhythm, humor, and comic punchline. The performance was intelligently directed by Ivana Djilas, known for her involvement in musical theatre, an element that was successfully showcased in this production.

Much Ado About Nothing, by Slovene National Theatre Nova Gorica. Photo: Slovene National Theatre Nova Gorica
Concluding Thoughts

Overall, the April 2024 meeting of the European Theatre Convention (ETC) in Nova Gorica was quite productive, having addressed key issues directly related to the future of European theatre.  The participants demonstrated their awareness of the difficulties and peculiarities of the present European theatre, as well as the urgency of the problems.  For this reason, all scheduled gatherings aimed for clarity regarding the proposals and the possibilities for implementing them. Of course, as is always the case in forward-looking projects, only time will tell if their proposed plans are successful.  From my perspective as a teacher, I gained a lot from watching the works of young writers, precisely because they stated clear goals and thematic concerns.  They provided me with a number of exciting new ideas to apply in actual classroom settings and also ideas how to stimulate learning through theatre, with the ultimate goal of cultivating friendship, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of diverse groups. 


*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year.  In 2022 his latest book-length study Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter, was published by University Studio Press.  He is on the Executive Committee of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics  and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2024 Savas Patsalidis
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